In this article I look at the beginnings of the music industry, specifically through the development of sound engineering in the 1940s. This post forms the first in a series that explores the history of music production and the recording industry. Before you say, “BORING!” – hear me out 😉

There are many benefits to understanding the history of a particular field or industry:

  • By studying the past, you can better predict the future and get a sense of things to come.
  • You get an appreciation of what’s come before, and where you sit in terms of the field’s overall progression.
  • Knowing your history provides you with a contextual understanding of the key personnel and technological advances.
  • You’ll never be stuck for ideas – digging into the past can generate all kinds of creative inspiration.
  • Most of the problems that you’re facing now have already been solved, and you can draw upon the knowledge and experiences of those gone before.

It’s useful to know how the music industry, production technology and sound engineering have developed in order to provide a context for our music today. It’s not essential to know why your DAW looks like it does, or where terms like ‘flanger’ and ‘phaser’ come from, but it definitely helps. Plus, if you’re a nerd like me, it’s just straight up fascinating!

In this series, I’ll provide an introduction to the major developments in popular music history through the decades, encompassing the history of the recording, sound engineering, production and creative industries. I’ll explore the key figures, techniques and technologies that shaped the music industry that we know today.

Getting context

When studying the development of popular music and its production, it is essential to consider the development of technology through the decades. This had a profound impact upon the composition, style, structure and sound of music, as well as the artists and producers who created it.

Popular music has also been directly influenced by the social, economic and geographic factors surrounding each production, and what issues were facing artists and engineers at the time of composition.


Sound engineering in the 1940s

Ok, let’s go waaay back. Although the 1940s may not sound like a particularly exciting era for sound engineering, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the events, artists and engineers that pioneered music during this decade.

It’s no understatement that musical and technological developments in the 1940s changed the face of the music industry, sound engineering and recorded music forever.

Critically, the late ’40s saw the role of the ‘Music Producer’ emerge. The music industry became even more commercial, with the development of record labels and physical sales. Arrangers and A&R men actively sought out musical acts and turned their works into commercial successes.

This continued into the 1950s where the role of the producer became much more established.


The music

Duke Ellington

The predominant musical genres of the 1940s were:

  • Jazz
  • Big Band
  • Swing
  • Blues
  • Crooning

Prominent artists included:


The technology

Magnetophone

With the occurrence of two world wars, radio became ever more prevalent as a communication tool. It became very widespread and a commercial success, creating opportunities for the broadcast of music.

Vinyl 78-rpm recordings were developed. Ever wondered why pop songs tend to be around 3 minutes 30 seconds? Well, the size and speed of 78-rpm imposed a 3:30 time limit on single tunes, as vinyl was not able to hold more music than this.

It’s facts like this that make the history so interesting to me! The limitations of the technology shaped the art itself. Ever wondered why most movies are around 90 minutes? Same reason. This length was the limit of the film reels, which influenced culture in turn.

During this era, there were also major advances in the capabilities of magnetic tape. In 1943 AEG audio engineers developed stereo 2-track tape recorders, and magnetic tape was developed further by Ampex and 3M.

John T. Mullin improved the magnetic tape recorder (the German Magnetophone) with the support of Bing Crosby, enabling the first pre-recorded radio shows. Furthermore, Crosby and Mullin were the first to master commercial recordings on tape.

Before magnetic tape came along, it was extremely difficult to edit in sound engineering, mainly because it was so darn expensive. Think about that – the introduction of tape quite literally enabled editing through splicing and this, in turn, changed the game.

Bing Crosby subsequently invested in Ampex and the company revolutionised radio and recording with the Model 200 tape deck, issued in 1948. By 1949 magnetic tape recording became the industry standard.


Production techniques

Technical limitations influenced the way music was recorded and produced. At the beginning of the 1940s, music was recorded live with all instrumentalists performing simultaneously, due to the limits of the recorders at the time. Multi-tracking just wasn’t an option back then!

Artists and ensembles were recorded predominantly in mono, often using just one microphone! Rather than editing and mixing, balance was achieved by arranging performers physically in the recording space.

Although this might sound bizarre and hugely impractical by today’s standards, we can actually learn a lot from these practices. There’s nothing quite like the sound of performers interacting and playing simultaneously in one space – it creates a whole new sound and a different sonic energy. Knowing how best to capture this through delicate sound engineering provides a major advantage.

When multiple microphones were used, the channels were mixed live to a single mono track…how’s that for pressure?! Sound engineering on ice.

Ribbon microphones and tube preamps were the tools of choice (or lack of choice) and audio was recorded to lacquer disk on a lathe.

Interestingly, any compression or limiting was used purely for practical reasons, to ensure that the limits of the lacquer discs were not exceeded, and this was achieved with tube circuitry.

Due to these recording limitations, large halls had to be used to accommodate ensembles such as orchestras and big bands. This is one of the reasons that recordings at this time feature more ambience than modern productions.

Towards the start of the decade, editing was expensive and impractical due to the limitations of lacquer disk. This affected the way recordings were organised and the degree to which musicians were expected to prepare.

All personnel, including conductors, musicians and sound engineers, had to get things right first time. Re-takes were expensive, so musicians were required to be the best of the best.

Moving towards the end of the decade, although musicians were still recorded simultaneously, it’s here that multiple microphones began to be used, offering more flexibility in the overall balance. In addition, sound engineers began to introduce sound isolation and dampening to gain more control, such as acoustic barriers and baffles.


Examples

Below are some notable recordings from the 1940s, so that you can hear these elements in action:

Duke Ellington – I’m Beginning to See the Light

Benny Goodman – Jersey Bounce

Glenn Miller Orchestra – Chattanooga Choo Choo


The 1950s

I hope you enjoyed this trip back through the ages! Personally, I find this history fascinating and inspiring. It can actually be very rewarding to practice many of these sound engineering limitations to hone your own techniques, such as balancing performers around a single microphone.

Focusing on achieving quality at the source is an integral part of high quality productions. It’s important to get as much out of your recordings as possible, rather than relying on post production. Any processing you apply then enhances an already high quality product.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore the developments of one of the most exciting eras in the evolution of music production and sound engineering: the 1950s. This decade saw the introduction of multi-track recording, which revolutionised the recording industry.